The Speaker’s Lobby: The Sounds of Silence

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

21 January 2010

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) gaveled the hearing to order at 10:01 am Wednesday. He gazed out from the dais toward the witness table at Tareq and Michaele Salahi.

“I want to thank the witnesses for complying with the subpoenas and appearing,” Thompson said.

And “appear” is about all the Salahis did.

The Salahis declined an invitation to voluntarily testify at an early December hearing that probed how they allegedly crashed a November state dinner at the White House. So the committee took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing the Salahis to appear by January 20.

The duo apparently took that request literally. The Salahis “appeared” at Wednesday’s hearing. But they certainly didn’t say much. Or answer questions from lawmakers about how they skated past security and saddled up to President Obama and Vice President Biden for pictures.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi have made a hobby of being seen at some of Washington, DC’s splashiest events. And Wednesday’s hearing was no exception. The Salahis were seen. Not heard.

Before the couple made their way into the hearing room inside the Cannon House Office Building, their attorney made it clear his clients would not respond to questions and would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights to protect against self-incrimination. And as committee members pressed the Salahis about how they bucked White House security, the couple claimed shelter under the Fifth Amendment 31 times and declined to answer most inquiries.

Bennie Thompson led off the questioning.

“Did you attend the dinner as part of a reality TV stunt?”

“Did you receive an invitation through the mail?”

“Were you on the Secret Service security list?”

But each question cratered.

“On the advice of counsel, I respectfully assert by right to remain silent and decline to answer your question,” Tareq Salahi answered repeatedly to the consternation of committee members. The Salahis’ reticence so incensed some lawmakers that they refused to even query the witnesses.

“I have no questions,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA). “It would obviously be a fruitless effort.”

“I have no questions of these great Americans,” mocked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) before gathering his papers and leaving the room.

But some lawmakers posed questions anyway. Were the two on a White House guest list? Were they under contract with Bravo or NBC? How did they get past security? What more did they need to understand that they were not invited?

But the sounds of silence proved too much for a few lawmakers. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA)  said he didn’t intend to ask the couple any questions. But Tareq provoked the California Republican when he read an opening statement that said they were “strong supporters of men and women in uniform” and added that “nothing that transpired on November 24 should take away from the extraordinary service the United States Secret Service performs on a regular basis.”

“For people to make a joke of (their work) is an affront to those individuals,” scolded Lungren. “The Constitution protects fools. The Constitution protects stupidity. The Constitution protects errant thought. Thank God that it does.”

The Constitution, however, does not protect against the press.

A phalanx of news photographers and camera operators greeted the Salahis as they entered the hearing room some 20 minutes before the session was scheduled to start. Michaele wore a cream-colored shawl with frills, a short skirt, brown ankle boots with four-inch heels and a string of pearls. She carried a black clutch. Apparently more comfortable executing a skirt turn on the red carpet than walking through the halls of Congress, Michaele briefly stumbled as she traversed the marble corridor of the Cannon building. Meantime, Tareq was stuffed into a double-breasted dark suit that appeared to be a size too small. He wore a white shirt with a black and blue tie and sported cuff links.  

The Salahis then entered the hearing room and strode toward the witness table, their seats denoted by name placards. They  took their chairs. And despite arriving so early, Michaele picked up a # 2 pencil and a notepad provided by the committee, as if prepping to jot down notes. She leaned forward as though straining to hear a college professor lecturing at the front of the room. But the only thing in front of her was the wall of photographers, feverishly snapping photographs.

This produced a freakish tableau. The Salahis were on display, peering ahead as though listening to an imaginary chairman on the dais. And the photographers kept shooting, just inches away from their noses. This uncomfortable scene continued for eight painful minutes. Finally one of their lawyers rescued the couple from the witness table and whisked them to a huddle in the rear of the room.

The FBI is now investigating the Salahis. And Tareq Salahi promised lawmakers that he and his wife will tell the committee their side of the story after they’re out of legal jeopardy. But with one condition. Tareq told the panel that they would tell all through their lawyers.

“It’s not going to come from our voices,” he said.

The Salahis’ voice, attorney Stephen Best, did all of the talking to the media. He read a statement to reporters and declared the proceeding a “charade.”

“This was an opportunity for a public flogging,” he said.

And flog they did.

“They may be beautiful on the outside…” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) of the Salahis, before mentioning Martin Luther King and his dream that people be judged on the content of their character.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) was incredulous at the lengths the Salahis went to in order to duck answering even the most simple of questions.

“I do not respect your right (against testifying). Not at all,” frothed Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ). “Were you there (at the White House)?”

Pascrell grew apoplectic when the Salahis pivoted in their seats to ask Stephen Best if they should respond.

“Did you wear a tuxedo that night? You gonna take the Fifth on that? Were you there?” hectored Pascrell. “Are you here today, Mr. Salahi? Are you here right now?”

Near the end of the hearing, the Salahis drew a sharp admonition from Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), who represents the Sin City suburbs. The Salahis served as celebrity hosts at Pure, a posh Vegas nightclub over the weekend.

“Did you notice people had to stand in line and pay a fee? And they don’t allow party crashes?” Titus asked? “Did you have a good time in Las Vegas?”

We’ll never know.

The Salahis pleaded the Fifth.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for Fox News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.